Imagine a place where countries unite in an international fraternity. The French shake hands with English; Japanese nod smilingly to Swedish neighbors; native Scots welcome Italians; and this year, 11 Hardin-Simmons University theatre students, along with three professors, become part of two gigantic events that collide in Scotland’s capitol city.
The two biggest events on the Scottish calendar are unabashedly the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, both attracting thousands of visitors and participants, including the group of HSU theatre students who packed up their luggage and costumes, props and set pieces, projectors and lights, and went on a journey that undoubtedly will shape the rest of their lives.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest arts festival on Earth, a rather inspiring celebration of performances and entertainment emerging from every continent across the globe. Participation in the festival is voluntary and relies entirely on the initiative of the thousands of entertainers who perform at one of hundreds of venues at the festival.
The journey to the world stage actually started a year-and-a-half earlier when Larry Wheeler, head of the HSU Theatre Department and associate professor of theatre, was invited by the International Collegiate Theatre Festival to consider bringing a group of students to perform a play during The Fringe festival, which takes place the first three weeks of August each summer in Edinburgh.
Six months after that invitation, Wheeler flew to Scotland to see what the 2011 festival was like and to see if his department would be able to participate. Wheeler says the five-day trip convinced him that his department had to find a way to involve students in the tremendous experience.
On the first day of classes last fall, Wheeler, along with the theatre’s new artistic director and assistant professor of theatre, Dean Nolen, revealed to students the lofty plans to perform at the Scottish festival.
“The trip is open to anyone who wants to go, but those in the first show of the spring semester will be the cast to perform,” says Wheeler as he confronts his students with the news. “Dean and I told them the estimated cost for the two-week trip, informed them that they were responsible for raising the money for their participation, that they were responsible for their own plane ticket, and the theatre department would try to help find additional funds as it could.”
Undaunted by the costs, and bowled over with the opportunity, several students made the commitment to go on the trip that very day and began almost immediately to make installment payments, says Wheeler. Meanwhile, the department applied for and received a generous grant through the Community Foundation of Abilene, and continued to find additional means to help raise funds.
One year later, with all of the bills finally paid and plane tickets in hand, the cast and crew returned to campus in late July 2012, to begin brush-up rehearsals on the production of Birds On A Wire, which had premiered in the Van Ellis Theatre the previous spring semester. After several full days of rehearsals, the group piled into vans and headed off to Edinburgh by way of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and a European touchdown in The Netherlands’ capitol city of Amsterdam.
“Some of the students had traveled before and knew what was ahead for them,” says Wheeler. “Others had never been very far from Texas. Some had never flown before, some had never owned a passport, and some had never heard someone try to communicate with them in a language other than English.”
The adventure of a lifetime, one surely to mold and resonate with each of the students, had begun.
“We arrived on August 2, 2012, to begin what would become an unbelievable adventure,” says Wheeler. “We took bus tours of the city and the country side; took walking tours of castles; climbed Edinburgh’s highest peak, called Arthur’s Seat; saw street performers, musicians, comedians, jugglers, puppeteers, mimes, costumed characters of every sort, and of course, saw dozens of plays,” says Wheeler. “I personally saw more than 20 plays, and recent Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate, Ryan McBride, saw more than 30 plays. Many of the plays were new, original scripts, but there were also productions of plays from almost every historical period.”
Birds on a Wire represented one of those periods as well as a new and original script. The play, by New York playwright Shauna Kanter, brings to life one of the greatest ecological disasters in American history, the Dust Bowl, occurring during one of the greatest economic disasters the world has known, the Great Depression.
Birds on a Wire is about an immigrant Russian-Jewish family living in the Texas panhandle, which displays unbelievable resilience to stay and save their family farm from the ravages of dust, drought, grasshoppers, and death. The storyline details the hardships as the family learns to forgive each other, forgive an indifferent community, and accept the aid of a community of friends.
While thousands of actors, comedians, dancers, and artists from all over the world perform at The Fringe, the HSU contingent was a part of the International Collegiate Theatre Festival consisting of seven participants from colleges in the United Sates: University of South Florida; Northern Essex Community College, Massachusetts; Centre College, Kentucky; Marshall University, Virginia; University of Puerto Rico; Howard Payne University, Brownwood, Texas; and HSU. The organization also works with more than 50 high school groups that participate in the American High School Theatre Festival at The Fringe.
There, more than 2,700 performing individuals and groups are assigned one of the 350-plus performing venues in Edinburgh. “We were assigned Venue 45, which is the fellowship hall of Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in City Centre Edinburgh,” says Wheeler. “We were allowed one two-hour technical rehearsal to get used to the space, and we performed our show four times throughout our two-week stay.”
Wheeler says the group also had a great deal of free time to see plays, explore the city, take tours, visit museums, and even planned a site-seeing excursion of Sterling Castle, the towns of Callender and Ayberfoyle, and drove through a portion of the Scottish Highlands.
The other highlight of the trip was a festival running concurrent with The Fringe. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which attracts an international audience of some 215,000 people each year, is considered by many to be one of the most spectacular shows in the world.
The three-week event of music and pageantry consists of traditional military bands as well as Scottish drum and bagpipe bands. Participating bands include the Queen Victoria School, The Scots College Pipes and Drums, The Royal Regiment of Scotland Band, The Australian Defense Force Band, The U.S. Naval Forces Europe Band, and His Majesty’s King of Norway Guard Band and Drill Team.
Wheeler says his students witnessed over a thousand band members on the marching field as they played en masse following individual band performances. As Wheeler describes it, “The event takes place at the top of the Royal Mile with Edinburgh Castle as the backdrop. There are fireworks, special effects’ lighting, projections and a military jet fly-over; and all of this spectacle was set in the context of Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee celebration.”
Wheeler says there were many lessons learned this summer. “Our students learned the value of the dollar as they paid for their trip, and they learned to convert dollars to pounds and pounds to dollars as they purchased food and trinkets in the shops they visited.
“They learned to communicate with shop keepers, waiters and bus drivers as these Scotsmen spoke in their lilting Scottish accents. They learned to communicate with our University of Puerto Rico friends as they tried to communicate with us in their broken English, because we could not speak their language.
“They learned to navigate the city using a variety of street and bus maps as we learned which busses went to what part of the city. They learned time management as they went from one play to another, deciding if they could walk the distance as quickly as it would take to find a bus to take them near that same location.
“They learned to depend on one another for direction, for scheduling, for being at the right place at the right time. They learned interdependence as we set up, tore down, and performed Birds On a Wire in a two-hour time period four times during those two weeks.
“They learned to appreciate the work of their fellow Fringe performers as they listened to the poetry, literature, drama, and music of these performers.
In 2008, the theatre department took a group of students to London for nine days to see as many performances as possible. In 2010, a group traveled to New York City for a week to watch as many plays as they could fit in. Wheeler has now set two new goals: to take another group of students to New York City in 2014, and another group to Scotland in 2016.
“Their minds, their worlds and their imaginations were blown wide open the moment they set foot on Scottish soil.” Wheeler says it is his goal to share with his students the world that is outside the four walls of his classroom, to help his students to learn, and to help them find their place in the world.